Album reviews

Brad Mehldau and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – ‘Variations on a Melancholy Theme’

Brad Mehldau and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – Variations on a Melancholy Theme
(Nonesuch Records. Album review by Mary James)

Imagine if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues, Brad Mehldau speculated about his Variations on a Melancholy Theme. This orchestral work does indeed follow in Brahms’ footsteps – it is supremely romantic and harmoniously lyrical, 35 deeply satisfying minutes with more than enough bluesy piano to reward jazz fans, and defying classification as classical or jazz – it’s both. Just as Brahms evokes an emotional response by weaving grief, sweetness and anxiety in his Three Intermezzi for Piano Op. 117 (one of his final works), this recent release by Mehldau explores melancholy in its many manifestations using the classical form with jazz harmonies. It follows in the steps of his earlier orchestral works which started with his Brady Bunch Variations for piano and orchestra in 2007, the jazz/classical/rock Highway Rider in 2010 and more recently his Piano Concerto in 2018.

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Originally composed as a solo work for Russian American pianist Kirill Gerstein, this orchestral version was commissioned and performed with the Grammy Award-winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – a democratic conductor-less ensemble of 38 musicians who rotate leadership and governance and whose complete recordings are about to be released on Deutsche Grammophon. Mehldau and the Orchestra toured the US, Europe and Russia with the piece, and this recording was a live performance in October 2013 at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, a venue known for its elegance and perfect acoustics.

Mehldau explains the technical structure of the work in the liner notes, a series of paired variations book-ended with Theme and Postlude. He draws attention to the narrative challenge of how to tell a story that starts with a conclusion. Perhaps the answer to this conundrum is to use each variation to explore the multitude of emotions that trigger melancholy, to dissect and probe the emotion in order to understand it, or at least accept it. And that’s what happens in the Theme, 11 Variations, Cadenza and Postlude. They tumble into each other, scarcely a breath between them, creating a unified work which dazzles, each piece gently merging into the next with forward references.

Theme is a memorable waltz, gently paced and not deeply melancholic, although woodwind intimates that emotion. The first two variations continue the skittery waltz, a sense of remembered sunlit happiness which you know must end. The pace picks up and the mood darkens, a tumult of piano notes, dissonance and angles. Variation 7 is for orchestra only, twelve-tone, it is sombre with shades of Prokofiev and achingly beautiful strings. Variations 9 and 10 are lighter in feel after the dense and dark Variation 8, like dawn after a long night, and a sense of acceptance and resignation.

There is an American landscape spaciousness about the sound whilst at the same time a complexity of detail delicately and serenely portrayed by a masterly chamber orchestra. At no time does the piano dominate and Mehldau modestly allows himself only one Variation for solo piano, a Cadenza and an encore. The Cadenza is of limpid beauty like bird song and the pure blues encore Variations X and Y sparkles with staccato notes. The beauty of working with a conductor-less orchestra is that the musicians are free to grasp the moment to explore what they hear, without a single coherent viewpoint imposed from a conductor. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra do this with great sensitivity, no more so than in the longest piece, the symphonic climactic Postlude, a beautiful conversation between pianist and orchestra.

The recording may date from 2013 but now is a good time for this release, a follow up to Mehldau’s solo album Suite: April 2020 which explored his personal experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this orchestral work he explores a universal, valuable and intangible emotion with great insight into the human predicament. The album cover is also a thing of beauty – a montage of steam trains and steamboats, autumn foliage, a skyscraper at dusk and a sepia photo of unnamed women. These things hint at nostalgia and complement a very fine work.

LINK: Brad Mehldau on Bandcamp

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